Tag Archives: Recovery

10+ Thoughts on Building Training Breaks Into Strength And Endurance Training

Runners typically train for a race through 8-24 weeks of focused, progressive training, then take a break of either reduced or no running for some time afterward.

It just occurred to me that:

  1. People who primarily strength train as their exercise never train like this.
  2. Many who strength training typically see their development and progress hyperbolically slow after training for some time, and take for granted that this is normal.
  3. Serious runners also see their progress hyperbolically slow after years of mostly continuous hard training for some time, and take for granted that this is normal.
  4. Except for a weeks/months long “offseason” where they basically don’t train at all, most serious runners train continuously for their entire season with few, often brief planned breaks
  5. Runners could benefit from peak-and-valleying their training season in the style of a 12 month grade school. Basically, you ramp training around recurring goal races, with the plan to downscale training in the week(s) following those periodic goal races.
  6. Strength trainees may see more progress if they were to build regular periodic training breaks or “de-loads” into their training. Basically, progress training as usual for 8-24 weeks, then take a week or more where training stops and/or volume (whether reps, weight, frequency, or all of the above) are substantially, pointedly reduced. You rebuild, re-load energy and drive, then resume training a few days/weeks later really to attack the weights/road/water/bike/etc.

6a. Unplanned breaks like injuries and other life emergencies don’t count. Your body and mind are taxed and have to heal in other ways during breaks like these, and aren’t as fully available to rebuild and heal the way they do during a conscious, planned break in training. Sure, some recovery can happen, but imagine how you feel after a very stressful vacation. Are you “refreshed” and 100% when you go back to work or school?

  1. I imagine a lot of the stalled progress in muscle growth and other “GAINZ” most strength trainees experience would cease to stall if they consciously built to a scheduled peak over weeks/months, then made a point to take a 1-2 week break afterward before resuming.

7a. Fitness loss is minimal during a 1-2 week extended break. As distance running’s Hanson Brothers have attested, the body tends to reap direct benefits from a key workout (and conversely, experiences a loss of fitness from a lack thereof) after 8-12 days. You can probably take a week off before resuming training and experience little to no loss in strength/fitness from where you left off. Two weeks off, and the loss would be very slight, to the point where after a couple weeks of gradually resumed training you’d be back to where you had left off.

  1. So now, I’m looking at you, runners. Many of you have the right idea, where you start training mainly to run a goal race, train hard for that 8-24 weeks, then run your goal race and take it easy for a few days/weeks. There are certainly many things you could do better, but you have the right idea.

8a. And then there are some of you who continiously train, and train hard every week. You don’t take many planned breaks, maybe after a marathon or a longer race, but otherwise you’re doing high intensity workouts and/or high volume almost every week. And then you’re wondering why you get injured or you constantly have nagging injuries.

8b. Some of you call them “niggles”. I call them red alarm signals that you need to take a few days off.

  1. This doesn’t mean don’t run unless you’re training for a goal race. This means your training should more consciously ebb and flow, at the very least follow a 3-5 week continuous cycle of gradually increasing volume to a peak before a week of lighter training. But what could benefit you most is longer 8-16 week cycles of gradually progressing volume, then or preceding gradually increasing intensity, before tapering and/or a goal race, followed by a 1-2 week period of reduced or eliminated training at a substantially lower intensity.
  2. Plan breaks into your training before life makes you take unplanned breaks from training.
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Listening to your body: Not just about how you feel

Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

The catchphrase “listen to your body” is a general reminder to pay attention to the signals your body is giving you regarding your health, energy levels, mood, pain, etc. Paying attention to this information will show you when to rest, when to push hard in workouts, etc.

But we tend to only pay attention to energy, pain signals, and our general mood. Other things we measure and observe are also information our body is giving us.

Presuming you don’t have one: Some of this info can and should be tracked using a fitness watch such as a Fitbit or a Garmin. A suitable watch tracks calories burned and sleep on an ongoing basis. They’re not cheap (typically $100-400) but they are definitely worth their cost if you’re serious about fitness and personal development.

The information this watch can give you when worn everyday provides you with not just a wealth of stats, but those stats can communicate signals that your body hasn’t otherwise been able to get through to you.

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My biggest Chicago training mistake

Hindsight is typically 20/20 when it comes to training mistakes. Often you couldn’t have known at the time you were making a mistake, as experience afterwards is what ultimately taught you that what you thought was right turned out not to be right.

I trained a lot in Chicago as a runner, and I got into pretty good condition for where I was at. I learned how to prevent and safely work through injuries, and I logged a substantial volume of miles while running in dozens of races during the few years I seriously trained.

Looking back, I realize that something I did at every speed or tempo workout was actually counterproductive to my recovery and growth. It was hard to miss in large part because most of the people I trained with made a habit of the same thing, and even coaches didn’t realize this was counterproductive.

But the mistake inadvertently slowed my growth from these workouts, and had I know not to do it then I likely would have recovered more quickly and grown stronger workout-over-workout than I ended up doing. It may have made a substantial difference in how I performed in marathons and other key races.

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Active recovery is better than full rest

Amazon.com : RELIFE REBUILD YOUR LIFE Exercise Bike Indoor Cycling ...
A much fancier version of what I exercised on today, while reading

Today for me was a rest day, and by rest I day I mean I ran a tick below 3 miles and rode the spin bike for 45 minutes before 10am. How relaxing!

Honestly though, I mentioned yesterday how I was going to resume daily running. That almost-3 miler went well, as I kept it super easy and got out there very early.

For the sessions on the spin bike at the gym, here is how intense I tend to do these: I usually bring a book, and read that book while I’m riding. I set the spin bike around level 3 (among the lowest levels) and maintain around 85-90 rpm. Not exactly hard work, though it’s a steady easy effort.

Today I read through an old standby I’ve read a few times: 80/20 Running by Matt Fitzgerald. I didn’t pound through pages, and I usually don’t on these spin bike sessions. I very carefully read through about 20 pages towards the beginning of the book. I’d stop reading frequently to look up and around the gym. It was about as intensive a task as the spin ride itself.

Something like this is only a workout in title. This is mostly an exercise in active lower body circulation, getting the legs to move and flush waste products while cycling in fresh blood and nutrients.

There is a hint of upper body isometric work throughout. To stay upright, I won’t just sit upright in the seat: It’s impractical to read a book this way during this kind of effort. Maintaining upper body alignment, I will brace on the handles using my hands or forearms, depending on position.

This while not exactly tiring does require a subtle bit of arm strength, and is probably beneficial for my arm development and recovery (they do already get quite a bit of more serious work in my 20 minute strength workouts).

You don’t want to make a constant habit of isometric exercise, as you can stunt range of motion and possibly generate stress fractures over time. But a bit at a light intensity every now and again can be helpful.

I’ll do these recovery spin bike sessions now and again, probably 1-2 every couple weeks or so. They can be clumped together in a week and then not happen again for a week. They can happen once in a while. I play by ear when they happen, or build them in when I know there’s a lot of other exercise behind it.

As I’m looking to stay more consistently active, this for now is a very easy way to get some work in when also trying to rest and recover. As I type this (about an hour later) I really don’t feel tired at all, and certainly not sore. I was as expected a bit stiff in the legs, but as always I did some stretching afterward and now they feel alright.

If needing a day off, you are often better off doing some sort of activity on a recovery day than sitting and doing nothing. Most people often do plenty of nothing already.

Obviously there are caveats. If you are injured or very sick, you typically should rest and do nothing. Barring that, you should at least take a 20+ minute walk. And, even if you don’t want to read, an extended session on a stationary bike is also a decent way to sneak in some aerobic exercise and fat burning.

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How I Built A Training Schedule Around A Different Work Schedule

To preface all this, I have a weird work schedule now. Not that the schedule isn’t normal for me personally (I am working it every week, after all!), but it’s not a schedule most people work.

It’s an office job where I work from about 10-11am until about 8-9pm, an early swing or 2nd shift, and I work Thursday through Monday. That itself is no big deal.

What’s weird is that some days are worked in the office, and some days are worked remotely at home. Because most of the office works a traditional Monday through Friday schedule with office closed weekends and some holidays, there’s no practical reason for me to come to the office on weekends and holidays‚Ķ though the stores I interface with are open weekends and holidays.

So I work remotely at home on Saturdays, Sundays, and business-open holidays, while going to the office (when open) on Mondays, Thursdays and Fridays. (Of course, with the current Coronavirus risk, this can always change and I could end up working remotely everyday if that situation gets suitably dangerous again.)

Getting back to more relevant material, this adds several wrinkles to training. I’ve mentioned before that my schedule now allows me to train comfortably every morning, without having to wake up early. I can also sleep in as needed, and the reduced sleep deprivation improves my long term recovery.

However, once I get off work around 8-9pm, it’s highly impractical to train at all being so close to bedtime. So on work days I need to train during the morning, unless lunch and work circumstances allow me to sneak out and get a quick workout in during a late afternoon lunch break.

On the flip side, having to work out early in the day means spending my work day sitting, which really helps with recovery. There’s no afternoon commute or stress to complicate recovery‚Ķ especially if I’m working from home that day: There is no commute!

With all of these opportunities and advantages, I have slowly carved out a template for a weekly all-around training schedule.

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Eating is (literally) stressful

abundance agriculture bananas batch

Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

One observation from my Garmin watch is that my stress score goes up after meals. No matter what I eat, how healthy the food I’m eating, my stress levels go up after the meal and stay elevated for at least a couple hours or longer, depending of course on activity and whatever else I’m doing. This is even true if I eat before bed: My stress levels can remain high for up to 2 hours after I drift off to sleep, following a relatively late meal.

My body only shows as resting (meaning a low stress score) in the morning if I have yet to eat breakfast. Despite any hunger pangs, it’s less stressful for me (according to heart rate variability) to be hungry than it is for me to digest a meal after eating. I find I record more restful periods when I intermittent-fast, aka skip breakfast and eat my first meal in the afternoon. Even with the added stimulus of coffee, my stress levels remain in a low resting state.

Garmin’s stress score is a function of heart rate variability, which can indicate activation or rest of your body’s sympathetic nervous system, which activates the body for activity. When the sympathetic nervous system is regularly activated, that indicates your body is under stress. A heart rate that does not vary much is indicative of the sympathetic nervous system being activated.

What does this have to do with eating? The sympathetic nervous system is a component of the autonomic nervous system, which passively operates our organs and hormonal glands. When you eat food, the autonomic/sympathetic nervous system begins diverting blood from other organs to the stomach and other relevant digestive organs to digest your ingested food. This activation of your sympathetic nervous system will continue until your food has been suitably digested and absorbed.

Even if you are laying down and doing absolutely nothing, your sympathetic nervous system during digestion is at work and therefore your heart rate variability at rest is likely small enough to indicate a level of stress to your Garmin. That doesn’t seem fair, but welcome to human biology.

If you live a relatively low-stress existence, eat only 2-3 meals a day, and you’re in good health, this is likely not a big deal. Your heart rate will eventually return to normal variability in a couple hours, and your resting time will read to your tracker as being at rest.

Of course, the vast majority of humanity doesn’t fall into the very thin demographic I just outlined. Most of us deal with some substantial degree of regular stress. Many of us have different meal habits, and many snack or eat enough meals a day that their bodies are digesting food not just throughout the entire day but even after going to sleep. And, of course, most people are not in optimal health.

This never minds people who endurance train, and are already subjecting their bodies to substantial stress through their training. The irony is that, depending on their eating habits, their fueling after workouts may in fact be contributing to their overall (already high) stress levels.

Science incidentally hasn’t laid a hand on this subject in over a decade, so we don’t have a ton of data on why this needs to be a stress reaction let alone if we can change the body’s sympathetic nervous reaction to eating food. So we have to accept that this is reality and work within that.

This incidentally is an underlying reason why intermittent fasting and the old “eat dinner like a pauper” rule* works so well. Fasting by skipping breakfast leads to generally lower stress levels, which improves overall hormonal function. Eating light limits the stress affect on your sleep time, which can improve the quality of that sleep.

Of course, this should not be taken as license to starve yourself and not eat at all. At some points during the day you do need to eventually take in quality nutrition and “take the sack” (so to speak) on the resulting sympathetic stress, because your body needs that nutrition.

This merely points out how the timing of that nutrition can affect your overall sympathetic stress, which in turn can affect your overall health.

Though this was never an intent of the rule, this is one benefit to making sure to eat quality protein/carbs as soon after a hard workout as possible, e.g. the 30 minute and 2 hour windows. Your body undergoes a similar sympathetic stress response after a workout, though the stress ripple effect can last longer than your meals (often, for example, a long run leaves you in a high stress state for the entire rest of the day, even if you spend all day laying down).

Eating as soon as possible and triggering that sympathetic nervous reaction can effectively piggy-back off the other sympathetic nervous reaction recovering from the workout itself. Eating much later could effectively re-start the sympathetic stress reaction, whereas eating right after one has began saves you the trouble of an extra stress reaction, or an extended period of elevated sympathetic stress. You can get back to a normal resting state more quickly, and spend more time in that low-stress rested state than if you had eaten later and had two separate stress-creating episodes for your sympathetic nervous system.

This lends credence to the following ideas:

  • Unless you work out in the morning, or you have health-related reasons not to do so, it’s probably best to intermittent fast by skipping breakfast, nothing but coffee and water.
  • Probably only eat breakfast if doing a morning workout, and probably following that workout.
  • It’s important to consume nutrition within 30 minutes of finishing tougher workouts, and to eat a meal within two hours of finishing those workouts.
  • Regardless of the size of dinner, you want to buffer a couple of hours between the end of dinner and bedtime, to allow digestion and its stress reaction to finish as early in the sleep cycle as possible.
  • Avoid snacking, as it restarts the sympathetic nervous stress reaction. Eat full meals and only full meals, 2-4 times a day.
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The Overload Principle: The training value of runners training tired

Human nature leads us to take it easy when we’re sore or tired. Obviously, we don’t feel good, so our nature tells us to rest until we feel better.

Many training plans for runners will ask you to run a high volume of miles, even though often times you are tired from the prior workouts. Many novice runners will make the mistake of skipping or curtailing the easier workouts because they are tired. They don’t realize their being tired is part of the training stimulus for those workouts!

In fitness training we have a concept called the Overload Principle. The principle is that your training stimulus has got to exceed your current capabilities to elicit optimal adaptions from that training.

For a beginning runner who doesn’t run much, the simple act of running in itself kicks in the overload principle. A beginner’s current capability is they aren’t yet comfortable running a lot. So running in itself already exceeds their current capabilities. A simple run will for them elicit those optimal adaptions.

Separately, consider strength training through weight lifting with heavy, challenging weights. Done with a suitable intensity (i.e. sufficient weight, capable but challenging form), lifting weights can exceed anyone’s current capabilities as long as the weight and/or exercise itself is more challenging that the trainee is generally used to. Even if a trainee gets comfortable with a given weight/exercise, adding weight or progressing the exercise into a more challenging form can once again exceed the trainee’s capabilities and elicit those optimal adaptions.

However, if the trainee were to maintain the current intensity as they got comfortable with it, the exercise while still beneficial would produce lesser adaptions and results. This is often why people hit a plateau when training.

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